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Challenging Ableism & Ableist Stereotypes in Beauty

Ever noticed how the beauty industry seems like a VIP party where 'perfection' is the only invite? Let's cut through the gloss. The beauty aisle can be a battleground for those who don't fit the cookie-cutter mold—especially for persons with disabilities. It's not just about the shades of lipstick on offer but the shades of humanity often left out.

A girl in a wheelchair enjoys nature, symbolizing access, independence, and adaptive design.

As we approach the International Day of People with Disabilities on December 3rd, it's time to spotlight the ableism that's been the industry's not-so-secret foundation. We're talking about the invisible barriers and the all-too-visible exclusions that say, "This isn't for you."

But here's the twist: beauty is not a privilege; it's a right. And it's high time the beauty industry got the memo. This article isn't just a call to action - it's a call to revolutionize. To dismantle ableism and the discrimination and celebrate every face, every body, every unique beauty. Because when beauty stands for inclusivity, we all shine brighter.

So, let's get real about ableism, challenge the norms, and paint a new picture of beauty - one that's as diverse as the world we live in.

Decoding Disability: Beyond the Stereotypes

Disability: it's a term that's been through the wringer, often cloaked in stereotypes or reduced to a whisper when it deserves a conversation. Let's pull up a chair and unpack what disability really means, guided by the authoritative voices reshaping our perceptions.

Disability Defined: What is a Disability? 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international human rights treaty of the United Nations signed in 2007 and effective since May 2008, intended to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities, has redefined the narrative around disability.

The CRPD articulates,

"Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others."

This definition, detailed in Article 1 of the CRPD, is a clarion call from the UN to acknowledge and dismantle the barriers that prevent full participation in society.

Complementing the CRPD, the World Health Organization (WHO) casts a wider net on the definition, considering the interplay between individual health conditions and societal factors. The WHO emphasizes that disability is not just a health issue but a complex social phenomenon shaped by environmental and personal factors.

The Many Faces of Disability

Imagine disability as a spectrum - a vast range of experiences as varied as the human condition itself. From physical to sensory, cognitive to mental health, each form of disability carries its own narrative, challenges, and strengths. It's not a one-size-fits-all label but a personalized journey where each path is distinct. This diversity defies the single-story narrative that society often tries to impose, reminding us that each person's disability is as individual as a fingerprint, and it's about time our understanding evolved to match this reality.

An athlete with disability is doing fitness, representing inclusivity, diversity and how people with disabilities can do sport

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paints a picture of disability that includes impairments affecting vision, movement, thinking, remembering, learning, communicating, hearing, mental health, and social relationships. Just like no two snowflakes are alike, two individuals with the same type of disability can experience it in vastly different ways. Some disabilities are visible, while others, like mental health struggles or chronic pain, are less apparent, often carrying their own set of invisible challenges.

Disabilities can be present from birth, emerge during childhood, or be the result of an injury. They can be static, like the loss of a limb, or fluctuate, such as with multiple sclerosis. Diving into the World Health Organization's framework, we see disability as a three-dimensional experience involving impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions.

An impairment refers to alterations in an individual's physical or mental capacities.

For instance, this could manifest as the absence of a limb, a deficit in visual acuity, or challenges with memory retention.

Activity limitations might present as obstacles in fundamental tasks,

like seeing, hearing, ambulating, or cognitive processes like strategizing or decision-making.

Participation restrictions are barriers that curtail involvement in routine life activities,

Considering these three dimensions, it becomes clear that there's a nuanced interaction between an individual's physical or mental state and the broader environment they inhabit. Understanding impairment is key—it's not just about the absence of a limb or a sense; it's about how these differences affect daily life. The WHO’s framework helps us grasp this by differentiating between activity (doing the task) and participation (being involved in life situations). It's a subtle but crucial distinction that underscores the importance of an environment that either enables or hinders a person's ability to engage fully in life.

A woman on her wheelchair is posing for a portrait, representing beauty for all abilities, diversity and inclusivity.

Persons with Disabilities: The Largest Minority Worldwide

Let's talk digits because when it comes to understanding the scope of disability, numbers speak volumes.

Globally, in 2023, disabilities touch an estimated 1.3 billion people, representing about 16% of the world's population, or 1 in 6 of us, as per the World Health Organization. This staggering number identifies disability as the largest minority worldwide, highlighting the importance of addressing their needs and challenges to achieve a more inclusive society.

Inequalities Faced by People with Disabilities

Now, let's get real about the inequalities. Consider this striking fact: a staggering 80% of individuals with disabilities reside in developing nations, where being disabled frequently correlates with poverty and exclusion. This association leads to profound social, economic, and cultural hardships.

The WHO also tells us that persons with disabilities can have a life expectancy up to 20 years shorter than those without. And if that's not jarring enough, consider this: the risk of developing health conditions like depression, asthma, or diabetes is double for those with disabilities. It's not just about health, though. Here’s a fact that's hard to swallow: access to basic, everyday transportation can be 15 times more difficult for someone with a disability. Imagine that for a second. Something as simple as catching a bus to go to work or the grocery store becomes a Herculean task.

Some statistics on disability, showing little inclusion.

The narrative revealed by statistics about education and employment for persons with disabilities is also compelling and concerning. According to UNESCO, a staggering 90% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school. The literacy rate for adults with disabilities plummets to a mere 3% globally, with women facing an even steeper climb at 1%.

In the realm of employment, the figures are equally telling. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2022, globally, 70% of persons with disabilities were not engaged in the workforce at all, neither employed nor actively seeking employment. This rate is markedly higher than the 40% inactivity rate for persons without disabilities. The disparity is even more pronounced for women with disabilities, who encounter compounded obstacles due to both gender and disability. Over in the United States, a 2022 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics throws into sharp relief the employment disparity: only 21.3% of persons with disabilities of working age are employed, a stark contrast to the 65.4% employment rate of their non-disabled counterparts.

Now, let's peek at the data from Eurostat. It paints a picture of poverty and income inequalities that disproportionately affect those with disabilities. In the year 2021, the scales of economic balance tipped unfavorably for Europeans living with disabilities. Nearly 30% of this demographic teetered on the brink of poverty or social exclusion, a stark contrast to the 18.8% of individuals without disabilities facing similar challenges. When it came to the crunch of daily finances, over a quarter of Europeans with disabilities - 25.7% to be exact - struggled to keep their heads above water financially, a struggle shared by a significantly lower 16.2% of those without disabilities. It's not just a gap; it's a chasm. And it's not just about money. It's about dignity, opportunity, and the right to participate fully in society.

These aren't just sobering statistics; they're real people's lives. They're a wake-up call to the barriers - physical, social, and systemic - that need dismantling. It's about recognizing the inequities and taking action to create a world that's truly inclusive.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Ableism & Discrimination in Beauty

In the kingdom of beauty, the mirror on the wall has had quite a narrow view. It's been reflecting the same old story: a tale of beauty standards that have historically excluded a significant part of the population: people with disabilities. This isn't just about not seeing diverse bodies in ads; it's about the systemic sidelining of an entire community, whose beauty narratives are just as rich and deserving of the spotlight.

Ableism, the discrimination in favor of able-bodied individuals, has been the unspoken script behind this narrative (Access Living, 2019). It's a tale that has often rendered people with disabilities invisible in the beauty industry, reinforcing the misguided notion that beauty and disability are mutually exclusive. The 'fairest' have traditionally been those who fit a narrow, able-bodied ideal, and the beauty industry has often overlooked the fact that beauty comes in all forms. Hence, the beauty industry is inherently ableist.

The irony? The industry that champions 'uniqueness' has been uniform in its exclusion. It's high time the narrative is rewritten to defy ableism and include the kaleidoscope of beauty that people with disabilities represent.

A woman's working in the beauty industry on a wheelchair, contributing to diversity and inclusion of people with disabilities.

The Invisible Spectrum: The Implications of Ableism in the Beauty Industry

The implications of ableism in beauty are profound, from the absence of representation in media and advertising to the lack of accessible beauty products. This exclusion not only impacts the self-esteem and visibility of people with disabilities but also perpetuates outdated stereotypes.

In addition, the lack of accessible products and representation is a reflection of the systemic ableist barriers that continue to exist within the industry. When people with disabilities are included, it's often tokenistic, a surface-level nod to diversity that fails to recognize the depth of their experiences and the breadth of their beauty.

The absence of people with disabilities in beauty campaigns and narratives isn't just an oversight; it's a significant gap in the market reflecting ableism, discrimination and prejudices against people with disabilities. In 2021, in the United States, a mere 1% of primetime television advertisements showcased individuals with disabilities, according to research by Nielsen. This stark underrepresentation is particularly jarring when considering that people with disabilities make up 26% of the U.S. population. This lack of representation extends beyond the ads we see; it permeates product development, store accessibility, and customer service. As a study by P&G in 2019 reports, only 4% of beauty products are designed with disability in mind. This statistic is a stark reminder of the work that remains to be done to defy ableism.

The Beauty Battlefield: Challenges Faced by People with Disabilities

As mentioned above, ableism inherently permeates the beauty industry. Navigating the beauty aisles can often feel like a contestant on an obstacle course for many people with disabilities. All these obstacles are just a few forms that ableism can take.

Packaging or Puzzle?

Imagine trying to solve a Rubik's Cube, blindfolded, with one hand tied behind your back. That's a day in the life of a person with limited dexterity trying to pry open the fortress-like packaging of a beauty product. The industry's love affair with sleek, tiny-topped bottles and vacuum-sealed boxes doesn't just test patience; it's a barrier that turns the simple act of using a product into a Herculean task.

Or, think of the challenge of deciphering the fine print on beauty product packaging. For those with visual impairments, or with a learning disability such as dyslexia, the lack of Braille or QR codes for audio guidance turns each new product into a guessing game. It's like being handed a book with no title or a map with no legend.

These examples aren’t just a minor inconvenience; they are a design flaw that robs individuals of their autonomy, forcing them to rely on others for what should be a personal and empowering experience.

Shopping or Surviving?

For a wheelchair user, a shopping trip is less 'retail therapy' and more 'survival of the fittest.' The gauntlet begins with the quest for a parking spot, followed by the hurdle of inaccessible entrances. Once inside, the high shelves and narrow aisles become a labyrinth designed for the able-bodied, turning what should be a leisurely shopping experience into an obstacle course that would challenge even the most seasoned gladiator. 

Take, for instance, the testimony of Jordan Bone, a beauty enthusiast who, after a life-altering accident, found herself navigating the beauty counters in a wheelchair. She shares,

"Most counters are far too high to see and enjoy the products in the way that someone who isn't a wheelchair user does. It would be a step in the right direction if at least one area was wheelchair accessible, where we could wheel underneath the counter and indulge in the products before we make a purchase."

This isn't just about the height of counters, though that's a significant barrier. It's about the entire setup - from the towering shelves to the minuscule swivel chairs that demand a circus act of balance without offering any support. For those who rely on mobility aids like crutches or a walking stick, the simple act of swatching a lipstick or spritzing a perfume becomes a feat. The beauty industry's ableist oversight in design not only alienates but also sends a clear message: not everyone is considered in the vision of beauty (Cosmopolitan, 2023).

Navigating the Digital World

The digital revolution promised a level playing field, yet for many with disabilities online beauty shopping is just another battlefield. According to We Are Purple, a staggering 73% of customers with disabilities encounter barriers on over a quarter of the websites they visit.

Visual impairments turn image-rich websites into puzzles without pictures, where screen readers stumble over missing alt text image descriptions. Motor disabilities transform simple clicks into complex tasks, akin to a game of digital Twister with uncooperative drop-down menus and elusive buttons. For the hearing impaired, the absence of captions on videos means missing out on the full story behind a product. And cognitive challenges can make a cluttered website feel like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces.

Imagine the frustration when the digital aisles become a labyrinth of barriers, leaving customers with disabilities lost in a maze of inaccessibility.

Woman with Down syndrome with colourful makeup and a smiley face, empowering inclusivity and diversity for all abilities.

The Price of Beauty: Economic Costs

The economic barriers extend beyond the price tags. Specialty products often come with a premium, but when you're a person with a disability, the 'disability tax' inflates the cost further. From adaptive devices to assist with application to the premium pricing of accessible products, the financial strain can turn the pursuit of beauty into a luxury that not all can afford.

Take Lancôme's recent innovation, HAPTA, for example. Earlier this year, the brand made waves with the announcement of this AI-powered motor-stabilizing device, designed to assist those with limited arm mobility.

The idea is groundbreaking, with an ergonomic grip and "self-leveling" technology that sounds like a game-changer. But then comes the sticker shock — the device is projected to retail at around £199. When you consider that the cost of a standard lipstick hovers under £20, it begs the question: is this a genuine step towards accessible beauty, or is it a showcase of technological innovation with a prohibitive price point?

More than Skin Deep: Psychological Costs

The psychological toll is more than skin deep. When beauty is defined by a society that overlooks you, the message is clear: you don't fit. This narrative can etch deep grooves of exclusion into one's self-image, making the mirror on the wall an adversary rather than an ally. It's a shared experience for many in the disability community, where the reflection isn't just about appearance but about visibility and representation in the beauty narrative.

Beyond Ableism & Ableist Stereotypes: Pioneering Accessibility

In the beauty industry's narrative, a new chapter is being written by pioneering brands that champion accessibility and inclusivity. Human Beauty stands out as a beacon of innovation, founded on the belief in makeup's healing and therapeutic power. The brand's Liquid Confidence Mascara is a shining example of design with purpose, offering ease of use for those with mobility issues without a steep price tag (it’s priced £18.50), proving that true innovation is accessible to all.

The horizon of beauty is being reshaped by technology and innovation, poised to break down ableist barriers and redefine beauty standards and practices to be truly inclusive. The change we seek is about improving the virtual shopping experience for those with disabilities, ensuring websites are navigable and information is accessible. It's about rethinking in-store experiences, making counters and displays welcoming to all. It’s about ensuring products and packaging are universal, accessible to all. And it's about listening to the voices of those who have been marginalized, integrating their insights into the heart of product development, marketing and communication. In short, it’s about challenging and defying ableism.

Yet, the journey doesn't end with products or brands; it's about a collective shift in mindset. It's time to challenge stereotypes, confront ableism, and embrace a multifaceted definition of beauty. Inclusivity must move beyond a trend and become a core principle, ensuring beauty is an experience shared by all. As consumers, our voices and choices have the power to catalyze this transformation, supporting and spotlighting those who lead by example. It's time for the beauty industry to reflect the diversity of its clientele, not just in shades and formulas, but in accessibility and experience. Because beauty, in its truest form, is for everyone.


What is the definition of a disability?

Disability is defined by the CRPD as long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments that, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

What percent of the world has disabilities?

Globally, disabilities affect about 1.3 billion people, which is approximately 16% of the world's population, or 1 in 6 individuals.

What inequalities are faced by people with disabilities?

People with disabilities often face social, economic, and cultural hardships, including higher risks of poverty, health issues, and barriers to education, employment, and transportation.

What are examples where people with disabilities are not treated equally in society?

Examples include the lack of accessible transportation, limited employment opportunities, and insufficient representation in media and advertising.

What is the meaning of ableism?

Ableism is the discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities, which manifests in favoritism towards individuals without disabilities.

What is ableism in the beauty industry?

In the beauty industry, ableism is the systemic sidelining of people with disabilities, resulting in a lack of accessible products, representation, and consideration within the industry's standards and practices.

What are examples of ableism?

Examples of ableism include inaccessible packaging for beauty products, the absence of disability representation in media, and physical barriers within retail environments.

How can we avoid ableism?

We can avoid ableism by educating ourselves on the experiences of people with disabilities, advocating for inclusive practices, and designing products and spaces that are accessible to everyone.

What are some common challenges people with disabilities face with beauty products?

Common challenges faced by people with disabilities with beauty products include packaging that is difficult to open for those with limited dexterity, small print that is hard to read for those with visual impairments, and the higher costs associated with adaptive beauty devices.

How can the beauty industry become more inclusive towards people with disabilities?

The beauty industry can become more inclusive by designing accessible products, creating navigable and informative online shopping experiences, ensuring physical stores are welcoming to all, and including people with disabilities in advertising and content creation.

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